Following her 2012 theatre production, Silent Voices, Judith Adong joined the ranks of the best in performing arts.
Her play was based on the 20-year war in north Uganda. The play told of atrocities committed by both the government and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels, making it politically sensitive.
Dr Ian Clarke, proprietor of International Hospital Kampala, whose son played the lead child character in the play, had to watch several shows because the feeling in the theatre fraternity was that the security forces might clamp down on the production any minute. Luckily, this never happened.
While it was common practice to use single sets on stage, Silent Voices had more than 10 sets, from peace talks in Juba to the battlefield in Gulu, from the commander’s home in the jungle to the government prison in a metropolitan area, and so on.
This helped tell a three-dimensional story of the war, making it a gripping production. The play that ran from July 21 to August 5, 2012, was sold out for all 12 shows.
At the time, Adong was a lecturer at Makerere University’s drama department. Less than a week after the production, she left to pursue a master’s degree of Fine Art in Filmmaking at Temple University in Philadelphia, US. This is a terminal degree that is a masters and PhD at the same time.
“Growing up in the harsh war conditions of northern Uganda, I knew that I had no luxury to act up and make wrong choices. I was determined to put school first as the only way to break away from the difficult childhood. At some point, all the children in my village had to walk miles to sleep in the bus park because we risked being abducted if we slept at home.”
“While at Sacred Heart Girls School, Gulu, girls in a dormitory next to mine were abducted by the rebels. In 1996, the war got so bad that I had to leave Sacred Heart and come to a tiny private school somewhere in Bweyogerere, Wakiso.”
Growing up in the care of a single mom who had to earn a living and take care of six children with no real qualifications, was not a walk in the park.
“I determined early that I would not repeat my mom’s cycle. I strongly believed and still believe that if you are a disadvantaged child/person, the more reason you should work hard and change your circumstances,” says Adong.
When Adong arrived in the US for her post-graduate studies, she understood the meaning of hard work.
“While at Temple University, the importance of hands-on training sunk in,” Adong says. “To give you an example, the rehearsal hall in which we took our classes had no chairs. We were kept on our toes. You do not learn acting by writing it in a book. You do not learn directing by sitting in a chair. You learn by doing it, and if you do it long enough, it gets etched on your brain. Apprenticeship is the way to go,” adds the playwright.
When Adong returned home in 2015, she determined to be the change she wanted to see. So determined was Adong that no sooner had she arrived from her studies than she started on the pilot programme. The three pioneer participants started their theatre apprenticeship in August that year.
The five-week programme covered areas of sound design, costume and props design, and stage management. The three would later launch their new skills during the staging of the Luo version of Silent Voices in Gulu, Kitgum, Lira and Kampala in September to October 2015.
After the pilot programme, Adong registered Silent Voices Uganda Limited at the beginning of 2016. The 2016 trainees received skills in directing, acting and set design. After this programme, Adong decided on more changes to deal with new challenges.
“We had challenges with the unprofessional behaviour of some of the trainers. A trainer would be expected to start his class at 10 o’clock. You would call this person 20 minutes to the time and he would say that he’s in Entebbe, 40km away. I realised the only trainer I could really control was me so I decided to change the programme to train directors; which I can do myself.”
And so the 2017 programme had 10 apprentices and all of them enrolled in the directors’ programme. The 10 apprentices took part in shaping Adong’s 2017 play, Just Me, You and The Silence, that showed both at Theatre La Bonita and Bat Valley Theatre in July last year.
After the 2017 programme, Adong decided on the biggest change yet. She opened the application to the rest of Africa. Now Ugandans have to compete with others on the continent.
In recognition of her tenacity, Adong won the prestigious TED Global Fellowship (2017), a platform that seeks global trailblazers/Game Changers in Art, Science and Technology.
“When I first received the call shared by a friend, I did not think I would qualify seeing as it is very competitive with more than 3,000 global applicants yearly. So, I ignored it. Then, I received the call again through my mentor and I thought to myself, if he thinks I stand a chance then it is worth trying. I did and the rest as they say is history. As part of the fellowship, I gave a TED Talk why I do what I do at TED Global Conference 2017. I continue to receive support from TED to see that we achieve our vision,” says Adong.
In addition, one of Adong’s plays, Blood, has recently been published in the acclaimed anthology, 48 Hours in Harlem. It was launched in 2017 and is currently on sale on Amazon.
Another of her plays, Silent Voices, is set to be published in another anthology by Methuen Publishers UK to be launched in January next year.
Tomorrow we feature the story of 86-year-old Josephine Namakula, aka Mama Nazareth who established an orphanage in Masaka. She has raised more than 400 children.
Adong’s vision, at least a part of it, is to see that a performing arts centre is birthed in Uganda in the next 10 years. It would be a hub for training and the centre would have the capacity to host any performing arts production.
“What I would love to see is the variety I find in London or New York or Amsterdam. Variety in terms of professionals, performances and workshops and,”